NYRM2008
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PlentyUptown

Circulation: 125,000
Date of Birth: 2004
Frequency: Quarterly
Price: $3.99
Natural Habitat: On a glass coffee table, above a white luxury fur rug, in a black-leather-outfitted Harlem condo

By Lauren R. Harrison

Uptown is trying to do what no luxury magazine has ever done: target the small yet growing niche of affluent (minimum annual income of $75,000), relatively young (25 to 44) African American men and women.

This glossy lifestyle magazine started in 2004 and was the brainchild of Leonard Burnett, former group publisher at Vibe, and Brett Wright, a marketing whiz. With just four years of exposure, Uptown has overcome the startup hump that wrecked several other urban magazines such as Vibe Vixen and Honey, and is in the process of supplementing its New York City readership with regional editions in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
“What has impressed me the most is the level of creative talent interested in us now,” said Sékou Writes, the current online editor, who has worked at the magazine since its inception. “Especially in the beginning, it was hard to get people on the phone.”

An investment in 2007 by InterMedia Partners, a private media equity firm, has given Uptown’s growth plans a boost. This funding will help the magazine implement its strategic plan to add three markets by 2008, go bimonthly in 2009 and expand to 10 markets by 2011.
An aesthetically pleasing layout will also help the magazine break into new markets. Readers will find a publication packed with beautifully composed photographs that document the lives of black business people and current fashion trends. Each issue has a theme such as travel, art and entertainment, style or Hollywood. The Winter 2008 issue was a departure, with a theme centered on philanthropy.

In an editor’s letter, Editorial Director Carla Wills explains the reasoning behind this new theme. A colleague told her: “Black people don’t give! ‘Black philanthropy’ is an oxymoron.” The front of the book, titled “Select,” challenges this perspective with diverse examples of blacks giving back. Among their initiatives are socially conscious cafés, a food-service company that hires neighborhood residents and the National Black Programming Consortium, which funds films by black producers.

Despite the variety of content in the issue’s first 40 pages, some of the stories could benefit from further development. For example, a story about teenage musicians in Detroit's Sphinx Organization and Baltimore’s Soulful Symphony doesn’t include any teenagers’ voices. And a piece about Salome Yilma, co-founder of EthiDolls—a company that promotes positive self-image with dolls based on ancient African leaders—fails to tell us when Yilma began her company or where these dolls can be purchased.

Features in the body of the magazine also leave some questions unanswered, allotting too much space to photographs and not enough to informative text.

In contrast, the cover piece, about how hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons gives back, is a thorough and inspiring portrait of modern philanthropy that also takes a hard look at his business dealings. The article details Simmons’ continued use of the DeBeers company as his business’ jewelry outlet, despite its distribution of African blood diamonds.

Luckily for readers—though not for the magazine’s bottom line—features aren’t buried amid a pile of advertisements. The Winter 2008 issue had only 44 ad pages, far below the average of comparable consumer publications, according to Keija Minor, Uptown’s new editor in chief.

Distribution seems to be limited, too. When I looked for a copy of the Winter 2008 issue, it was nowhere to be found at seven magazine shops and bookstores in New York. The magazine’s media kit does mention a controlled and targeted distribution in residential buildings, restaurants, lounges, galleries, salons, health clubs, retail stores and the homes of the most influential African Americans. “I think that you’ll probably see it more now that the circ is going up,” said Minor, “but part of the model is definitely controlled circulation—getting the magazine into the hands of people who, based on the demographic, can really benefit most from the stuff that we’re talking about.”

Minor proudly declared that Uptown is “the only magazine of its kind.” That makes it even more imperative that the magazine devote as much attention—and space—to compelling written content as it does to photographs, layout and design.



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Copyright 2008
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
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